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I could have been a TLC fan. When the group’s first album, Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip, came out, I ignored the overblown Technicolor b-girl wear and strategically placed condoms and rejoiced in the underlying themes of individuality and sexual responsibility. I bumped “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “What About Your Friends” in my Aiwa and sang along with the rest of my peer group: “Hat to the back, gotta keep my pants down real low/That’s the kind of girl I am.” (Well, that was the kind of girl I wanted.) I was the only one of my friends to recognize Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins sneaking out of a Los Angeles movie theater. I merely gawked as the lead singer bounced right past me with her hat pulled low over her cute blond bob. In 1994, the trio dropped CrazySexyCool in direct opposition to their established tomboy image. The first two videos, “Creep,” which featured all three in flowing silk pajamas, and “Red Light Special,” with its semierotic vignettes, completely turned me on. Later, I remember watching with envy as some loser lunched with the gorgeous Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas at L.A.’s Beverly Center. That loser turned out to be supermodel Tyson Beckford; in my mind, it should have been me.
Unfortunately, CrazySexyCool was not very good. It wasn’t nearly as much fun as Ooooooohhh, and its tired production, by Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin, did not help shore up the girls’ limited vocal ability. TLC’s adolescent antics developed into full-fledged adult problems. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes burned her football-playing boyfriend’s house to a cinder, and the group eventually declared bankruptcy, citing problems with the label. Without a reasonable soundtrack to foster my fandom, these incidents were merely sound bytes on MTV News. My interest in TLC quickly petered out. I have since tried to watch Lopes as the host of MTV’s nauseating talent show, The Cut, but her outlandish outfits and camera mugging are usually too much to bear.
TLC has just released its third album, FanMail, allegedly “the world’s first album completely and solely dedicated to the fans.” After listening to FanMail, it became clear to me why I no longer have what it takes to be a true TLC fan: I’m simply too old-fashioned.
Despite retention of their gimmicky nicknames, T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli are now modern women, and their music shows it. For this project, they have brought in producers with names like Cyptron and Shekspere to design the instrumental equivalent of blue contact lenses, Lee Press-On Nails, and horsehair weaves.
Heavily influenced by electronica, the album augments the young ladies’ meager voices with a high-tech funk. The group even borrows the staccato cyber-tour-guide idea from A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. Bleeps and filters abound, and although the futuristic motif is frequently blatant, it mostly works. T-Boz’s sexy whisper-singing benefits greatly from the drastic pitch-shifting and phasing on the title track. The telephone-dialing notes on “Lovesick” are spare but effective. While Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis remain the most overrated producers in R&B, they are not completely responsible when FanMail falters.
It is not the updated sound of TLC that I find objectionable; it’s the group’s new attitude. Like many R&B albums, FanMail deals with relationships. Perhaps jaded by their recent financial and romantic difficulties, the three attack the subject from the most negative angles. The album sucks you in innocently enough, with the girls crooning vulnerably, “Just like you, I get lonely, too.” Immediately after, the tone turns ultra-defensive with this year’s funky chickenhead anthem, “Silly Ho.” T-Boz rails against gold diggers and insists vehemently, “I have always had my own things,” as if the audience were still questioning the group’s solvency. How the line “I can run a scam before he can, I’m better than a man” fits into her dating repertoire, I can only shudder to imagine.
The first single, “No Scrubs,” will undoubtedly introduce another hateful phrase to popular culture’s already strained slang vocabulary. (A “scrub” is a man who is “always talking ’bout what he wants and just sits on his broke ass.”) The song indicts scrubs on various offenses, including not owning the cars they drive and living with their mothers. “No Scrubs” is perfectly adolescent and simple-minded. (Un)fortunately, the track, produced by newcomer Shekspere, is superb, with its sustained chords and neo-medieval strumming. It’s already a commercial radio hit, with young women all over urban America singing a subtle ode to materialism.
FanMail gets really confusing after “No Scrubs.” Having declared so much disdain for money-grubbing “hos” and “deadbeat-ass” men, the women of TLC attempt, with little success, to clarify their romantic priorities. “I’m Good at Being Bad” begins with Chilli describing herself walking hand in hand along a sunlit beach with her man. She soon reveals that such an ideal is “not for me.” Suddenly, the music flips into a hardcore track built on an overused Donna Summer sample, and Left Eye leads the harpies in this legal-tender-loving chorus: “I want a crunk-type nigger, makes seven figures/Laced with the platinum not the silver shit, nigger.”
Even when superproducer Babyface chimes in, his effect is minimal. His sentimental production style, which has worked countless number of times for artists such as Toni Braxton and Boys II Men, is made to sound trite beneath TLC’s crude lyrics on “Dear Lie.” The crew runs the gamut of blown-relationship permutations, from the illicit affair of “If They Knew” to the vindictive cheating of “Automatic.” FanMail addresses every trepidation I might have about entering into a relationship and, for the most part, confirms my very worst fears. The girls even jab at sexual inadequacy on “Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet” and “Shout”: “Don’t want to spend another day unless I feel like you make me shout.” The more reassuring mid-tempo ballads, like “I Miss You So Much” and “Come on Down,” still cannot drag FanMail out of the muck.
Only the most naive romantic traveler would deny that the pitfalls described on FanMail are authentic. However, TLC seems to have arrived at a darker, gloomier place than necessary. With refrains like “Nigger, you must be crazy/What you gonna do with a bitch like me?/I’m so good at being bad, I’m the best you never had/I epitomize the word sexy,” the trio reduces men and women to “niggers” and “bitches” trading sex for money. As young girls, the group once seemed concerned with the idea of individuality. Rather than developing into a mature perception of independence, that concern has evolved into a gross, untrusting bitterness. If this is the modern definition of TLC, they’re better left to the Tyson Beckfords of the world, who can foot the bill.CP